I ordered a copy of ‘Milk and Honey’ by Rupi Kaur, who prefers to write in lower-case letters, after seeing a photo of her book shared on Instagram. Having read the book of poetry one morning while lying in bed, I instantly loved Rupi and her collection of poetry about ‘survival, womanhood, abuse, love, and loss’.
Having seen Rupi described as ‘the Beyoncé of poetry’ on social media, I was prompted to investigate further. I found out that this Canadian feminist poet and writer is one of many ‘Instapoets’ who share their work and amass their followers on social media, using Tumblr and Instagram to share excerpts and short poems to millions of followers.
One of the pioneer Instapoets is Lang Leav, the international best-selling author of Love & Misadventure, Lullabies, Memories and The Universe of Us who was born to Cambodian parents in a Thai refugee camp while they were on the run from the Khmer Rouge.
She was raised in Sydney and began to upload her poetry on Tumblr, when a literary blog spotted her work and reblogged her, thus launching her into the stratosphere of both Tumblr fame and poetry. Her self-published first collection Love & Misadventure sold 10,000 copies in one month and became a No1 Amazon bestseller.
Lang has a following of close to a million across social media platforms and is in the unusual position of being a living poet who has a cult following. On a 2015 book signing in the Phillipines, she was mobbed by fans.
‘“It was insane,” she says. “The organisers had to limit each signing to 500 people per session … and I was being escorted by armed guards.” Many queued for hours, some camping out overnight for a chance to meet her,’ wrote the Guardian.
Instapoets use their Instagram accounts to mostly post poetry instead of selfies, but many will recognise Rupi Kaur for a photo she posted of herself lying on a bed with menstrual blood staining her pyjamas and sheets. In her Instagram posts and books, she also uses simple drawings to illustrate her work and add that visual appeal that is still so central in #instapoetry.
Rupi originally self-published her first collection but like Lang Leav, was snapped up by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Milk and Honey is now into its 16th reprinting and has sold more than half a million copies in the US. The poet describes her collection as poetry and prose about survival, that deals with “the experience of violence, abuse, love, loss, and femininity”.
Lang and Rupi both muse on the themes of love and loneliness and their use of deep emotion in their work is obviously something that appeals to other Instagram-users and readers who are also tapping the heart symbol for pictures of quotes about break-ups and friendships.
The poems offer a more in-depth level of engagement than the selfies of the Kardashians, although they are also fans of Instapoets including R.M Drake, who posts poems in typewriter font on grey paper. Robert Marcias writes under the name R.M Drake and sells under Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and through his 1.6 million followers on Instagram. He is a full-time writer, something lots of poets can only dream of.
‘Milk and Honey’ has now passed out Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf on the Amazon US poetry book charts. A search for ‘#instapoetry’ on Instagram throws up 518,799 posts and the New York Times said that last year, three of the top 10 bestselling poetry books in the US were written by Instapoets.
Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav and their countless counterparts are evidence that for a special few, it is financially viable and even prosperous to write poetry, something almost unthinkable for many struggling poets who rely on the avenues of paper and print to make their mark. But a lot of the reviews levelled at ‘Milk and Honey’ complain that her work is underwhelming with a lot of criticism levelled at a lack of structure.
The poet’s published work is fed to the reader as art in the same manner as her Instagram feed which brings on complaints that the poems are ‘too Tumblr’. Loyal readers of poetry expect work that is not just about expression but also how the work is shaped, but what is special about Rupi and Lang is how they have created an maintained a powerful connection with their readers, more so than even more accepted poets in the literati.
Instapoets provide an accessible avenue into poetry for those who may never have pursued the avenue otherwise. While the length of their poems vary, the posts published straight into your Instagram feed suit the self-declared short attention span in most people who now live their lives, short attention spans and all, on the Internet.